Type keyword(s) to search


The Gilded Age is like a Disney version of the period it portrays

  • Julian Fellowes' new HBO series was inspired by Edith Wharton’s milieu of 1880s New York City, but misses the point of her work entirely, says Sophie Gilbert. "Like Wharton’s work, it documents a time when the rapacious accumulation of American resources and capital by a handful of industrialists was causing a palpable shift in the social order," says Gilbert. "This is, we might say, timely terrain. But The Gilded Age, stacked with a revolving door of Broadway’s stars, feels not only flat but also myopic. It grabs from Wharton’s themes but somehow entirely elides her fundamental observation: that this culture is so corrupted that the only people who can thrive within it are either mindless or irredeemable. If Downton cribbed from commedia dell’arte, The Gilded Age feels almost like Disney. It opens with a montage of PBS-familiar shots: sheep grazing in the green fields of Central Park, edifices rising up in stony grandeur, servants scurrying like mice. There’s a striking sense of unreality to it. Despite the size of the budgets involved—which was why the series, originally destined for NBC, was eventually shipped over to HBO—the city feels less like old New York than a Warner Bros. lot. Everything is too pristine. The overreliance on CGI to spruce up the scenery only adds to the uncanny-valley effect, as if we’re looking at dollhouses that have been elaborately constructed for full-size people." Gilbert adds: "Wharton is unlikely to have approved of such a half-hearted imitation of her work. No one more subtly rendered the toxicity in mannered society, the ugliness of a world in which status can be entirely divorced from morality. In 1947, the literary critic Diana Trilling wrote of Wharton’s The House of Mirth that it is 'one of the most telling indictments of a social system based on the chance distribution of wealth, and therefore of social privilege, that has ever been written.' Wharton’s New York, fully in thrall to money, celebrity, and power, feels almost more feudal than Downton does. But The Gilded Age takes this teeming morass of a historical period and essentially focuses on a single animating question: Will Bertha win the reigning socialite Mrs. Astor’s approval? As social commentary goes, it’s less The Custom of the Country than The Real Housewives of Washington Square."


    TOPICS: The Gilded Age, HBO, Christine Baranski, Edith Wharton, Helen Uffner